This is the year to discover Marseille. Named European Capital of Culture for 2013, the second-largest city of France will host numerous events, open new public buildings, enjoy an overall face-lift. I have never been there, although I have visited the South of France as recently as last summer. Perhaps, like many other tourists, I was put off by its reputation as a messy, ugly industrial town with high youth unemployment and criminality.
Having just discovered Jean-Claude Izzo and his trio of books set in his home town of Marseille, you might think I would be even less inclined to visit the city. The author describes a chaotic city, teeming with immigrants, noise, drugs and criminal gangs. Yet through it all you can feel his enduring love for the city, its colourful sights, huge variety of smells, the bustling vivacity of its music and its people.
The books are closely linked and chronological, so I would recommend reading them in order (although I didn’t do it myself):(1) ‘Total Chaos’ ; (2) ‘Chourmo'; (3) ‘Solea’. In the first book, Fabio Montale is a typical product of his native town – the son of poor Italian immigrants, he falls in with a dodgy crowd, gets involved in rather dubious activities as a teenager and only cleans up his act by joining the Foreign Legion and later the police. His two best friends, however, Manu and Ugu, and the girl they all loved, Lole, never manage to escape the brutish life of the northern (forgotten) suburbs of Marseille. When Fabio hears of their violent deaths, he sets aside conventional notions of policing to try and uncover who killed his childhood friends. Along the way he encounters other horrible crimes, damaged lives, Mafia links and a few good women who save him from himself.
If the first book still contains a fair amount of ‘setting the scene’ (and some very atmospheric descriptions of Marseille in all its gritty beauty), the second one is a more straightforward crime story and my favourite of the three. Feeling disillusioned and betrayed, Fabio has left the police force and spends his days fishing peacefully on the coast. He does not want to take part in any criminal investigations anymore, but when his beautiful cousin Gelou asks him to investigate the disappearance of her teenage son, Guitou, he reluctantly gets involved. The story of Guitou and his Muslim girlfriend, a real-life Romeo and Juliet, who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, is deeply moving. The story is far more complex, of course, and involves the Mafia once more, but also Islamic fundamentalism as well as Islamophobic policemen, several years before 9/11 brought the issue to the fore. Marseille was always a melting pot and therefore simmering with racial tensions which the rest of the world only find out about much later.
The third book features the journalist Babette (one of Fabio’s friends who also appears in the first book), who is uncovering some insalubrious links between the Italian and the French mafia. Fabio is once again involved in protecting his friend and her investigative work, almost against his will and with terrible consequences. The Mafia start picking off, one by one, all of the people closest and dearest to him. This book is all about the end of an era, the end of a town (through greediness and rampant over-development, as Izzo sees it), the end of hope and of friendship. It doesn’t get much bleaker than this, and the author never offers a happy ending, but I was captivated by the evocative language, the charm of the main protagonist, and the haunting sense of regret, of what might have been.
What I loved about this trilogy was that, although it makes no excuses for crime, it does show just how easy it is to fall into temptation and into a bad crowd. It is all about trying to live at the fringes of society – bleakness alleviated at times by tasty meals, washed down by good wine and glimmers of love, real or imagined. Fabio is unusually honest and sentimental for a cop, but he is also a flawed human being, overindulging in food and drink, prone to quick judgements, far too susceptible to feminine beauty, convinced he brings bad luck to his friends, far too eager to run off in his boat, to get away from it all and fish in the calanques. Someone we can all relate to, then!
The short, snappy titles, by the way, are song titles – the whole series is permeated by the variety of music that Fabio listens to (Arabic, French rap, jazz, Classical), although ‘Chourmo’ also refers to the sense of brotherhood of galley slaves, all pulling together in time on their oars, helping each other out in their shared misery. When I embarked on this series, I had no idea they had been so popular and influential, giving rise to a whole new genre, the Mediterranean noir, nor that Izzo had refused from the outset to write a sequel to them.
The Marseille trilogy has been very skillfully translated into English by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions in 2005-2007. Unfortunately, there will be no more new works by Izzo, as he died in 2000 at the age of just 55. However, he has a few other free-standing novels which I intend to read. And when I do go to Marseille, both he and Fabio Montale will be there with me. As will Miles Davis.
I read this trilogy as part of my Global Reading Challenge 2013, hosted by the very widely-read and knowledgeable Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise. This counts as the first of my European books (discovering a new location or writer).